Thibaut Courtois saved an early penalty and Michy Batshuayi scored the only goal to give Belgium a 1-0 win over Canada at the World Cup on Wednesday, spoiling the North American team’s return to the tournament after 36 years.
The Canadians have yet to collect a point or even score a goal in four World Cup matches, which includes the three games from their debut in 1986.
Still, they outplayed second-ranked Belgium at times at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, with Alphonso Davies – the star of Canada’s team – squandering the best chance when his penalty was blocked by Courtois.
With Eden Hazard ineffective and Kevin De Bruyne’s passing unusually awry, Belgium often relied on the long ball from the back and that tactic led to the 44th-minute goal. Center back Toby Alderweireld split the defense with his pass and Batshuayi ran through to guide a left-footed finish into the far corner.
Batshuayi was only playing because first-choice striker Romelu Lukaku was injured and could potentially miss the entire group stage.
Canada had 21 shots compared to the nine of Belgium, whose well-established team filled with veterans was far from convincing.
There were six players in their 30s in the starting lineup, four of them having accrued more than 100 international appearances. Courtois and De Bruyne might reach three figures at this World Cup, in what looks like being a last hurrah for this group of players often described as a “golden generation”.
The absence of Lukaku – a prolific scorer and big presence up front – is a huge blow to coach Roberto Martinez, with Batshuayi failing to impress aside from his well-taken goal.
Indeed, all the best moves came from a mobile and attacking Canada team in front of their loud, Maple Leaf-waving fans.
Davies stood out with his driving runs from left back while captain Atiba Hutchinson, at the age of 39, became the oldest outfield player to start a World Cup match.
They had 14 shots in the first half alone, the most by a team at the World Cup without scoring in 16 years.